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29 Jul 2020 | SWARMA

Working together even when apart: Lessons from SWaRMA’s remote partnership work

Neera Shrestha Pradhan, Santosh Raj Pathak & Fayezurahman Azizi

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Expedition team preparing the steam drill for mass balance stake installation on Pir Yakh Glacier in the Kabul basin, Afghanistan, in 2019. Important activities such as the establishment of Pir Yakh Glacier as the first benchmark glacier for long-term monitoring are underpinned by remote collaborations among partners and stakeholders. (Photo: Mahboobullah Bariz/National Water Affairs Regulation Authority, Afghanistan)

With physical distancing and lockdown measures in place due to COVID-19, most of us have been forced to reckon with a heavily technology-based work modality. Face-to-face meetings and events have given way to entirely web-based communication. Although colleagues have had to adapt to this unexpected shift in working style in a very short time, a structured approach to using technology and communication can make our work, particularly work with partners, more effective, impactful, and resource efficient.

Since 2018, ICIMOD and the Government of Afghanistan joined hands to work on the Strengthening Water Resources Management in Afghanistan (SWaRMA) Initiative. ICIMOD and Afghan partners’ experience in this initiative provides some useful insights on collaborating remotely. This SWaRMA Initiative has been partnering remotely to enhance the capacity of water sector professionals and institutions, enable technology transfer, and establish monitoring of cryosphere and river basins. Although some trainings and meetings were organized, much of the work focused on a structured collaborative approach and communication through virtual platforms, including a series of online training sessions.

Clear communication lines

Starting from the inception of the project, we focused on building an environment of openness and trust in our partnerships, which led to a shared ownership of contribution. We discussed possible challenges, which included the possibility of a remote work environment. This was important because many of our project areas were in difficult-to-access locations only open to Afghan nationals. This would also entail fewer opportunities for regular trust-building with possibilities of misunderstanding. We considered the challenge of limited internet connectivity, which could hamper quality dialogue, impede timely task completion, and hinder spontaneous virtual meetings.

To overcome these challenges, we focused on a good governance mechanism ensuring that decisions are taken through discussions with the partners. We encouraged our partners to openly share their concerns and challenges. Focal persons nominated from partner organizations facilitated the communication process. All major communication and updates were regularly relayed among the partners through group emails and monthly updates, and necessary feedback and consent were received. We made use of online services like Google Drive and Dropbox to share documents. We created WhatsApp groups to keep our partners informed about ongoing activities. While using these technologies, we also took care to clarify the contributions and roles of each partner, keeping them motivated and avoiding conflict and confusion. A partnership document was jointly prepared, based on which a regular health check of the partners was conducted. We ensured that our partners’ needs were met while also pursuing our key milestones.

CBFEWS-Installed-at-Pariyan-District of Panjshir Province, credit AKAH Afghanistan
Installing CBFEWS in Pariyan District of Panjshir Province in 2019. Afghan partners installed the system after undergoing a hands-on training at ICIMOD. (Photo: Aga Khan Agency for Habitat-Afghanistan)
Continuing remote partnerships in a post-pandemic setting

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, we can envision a sustained remote partnership and collaboration modality to implement projects. We share here some of the key lessons from our engagement in Afghanistan, particularly for colleagues looking to manage projects remotely:

The establishment of the first benchmark glacier monitoring station in Pir-Yakh glacier, wide adoption and application of the J2000 hydrological modeling in 16 sub-basins in Afghanistan, establishment of a science-based multi-stakeholder partnership platform, enhanced knowledge on multi-scale integrated river basin management, development of a roadmap for a water information system, and technology transfer of telemetry based flood monitoring system are some successful examples of SWaRMA project interventions.

Remote partnering has always been a challenge, and the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need to define a structured remote partnership mechanism – which can guide post-pandemic collaboration. Making the best use of emerging opportunities, challenges, and experiences, we can open the door to opportunities for working together even when apart.

(Fayezurahman Azizi is Director, General Directorate of Water Resource, National Water Affairs Regulation Authority, Afghanistan)

Training on J2000 hydrological modelling in 2018
Training on J2000 hydrological modelling in 2018. Lessons from the training practised on one catchment were outscaled by NWARA and implemented in 16 sub-basins in Afghanistan, with virtual guidance from the ICIMOD technical team. (Photo: Saurav Pradhananga/ICIMOD)


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